Understanding and Treating the Struggle with Sexual Addiction
Most people who struggle with pornography and sexual addiction appear outwardly as normal as anyone else. For instance, many sex addicts are doctors, lawyers, writers, pastors, priests, teachers, and successful business people. They occupy trustworthy vocational roles all over the world. Sex addicts can also be very committed husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends. They often have very high levels of spirituality and concern for others. So, why do many sex addicts cause so much damage in their relational lives? That is a really good question that can only be answered as each addict processes and works through their own life story to discover what helps them to be safe and caring towards themselves and others throughout their life.
Most individuals with pornography and sexual addiction issues struggle with intimacy, the building and maintaining of healthy relational attachments and connections through vulnerability. It, therefore, is not all that surprising that the key struggle of the individual struggling with a sexual addiction is concerned with healing, establishing, and maintaining intimacy with healthy attachment or connection. Outside of establishing a sustained sobriety, most of the therapeutic work is focused on learning about and practicing true intimacy.
Many people who struggle with addictions around sexual things, including the compulsive use of pornography, have grown up in families that had some form of physical, emotional, psychological, and/or sexual abuse. Most of the families that sex addicts come from also have some sort of history of addiction. For example, Mom was a closet alcoholic, Uncle was a heroin addict, Grandpa was a mean drunk, Dad worked all the time, etc. These families are typically either rather rigid and dogmatic or else very lax and uncaring. As a result, children from such families are not at all forthcoming with their feelings and/or thoughts, for they were not taught about appropriate boundaries for themselves or for others. When children grow up in such families, they typically learn to survive by living a separate and/or secret lives, because they are often not allowed to be themselves or given the necessary understanding as to how to be themselves.. They usually have problems with trust, or with sharing certain things with others, especially with others who are close enough to really hurt them, whether emotionally or otherwise.
Building and Maintaining Trusting Relationships
Much of the healing work done in sexual addiction treatment involves growing trusting relationships of honesty and authenticity. These healing relationships may include the individual’s primary relationship (spouse or partner), close, trusted and safe friends and family, individual therapist, group therapy cohorts, or other groups, i.e., twelve step or para-church, members.
The individual learns over time what building healthy relationships in their life is all about. They come to share their deep and dark thoughts, feelings, secrets, and shame with others who care, are safe, and want the best for them. This provides the unconditional acceptance that they need now and may have missed from their primary caregiver as a child. The process of participating in individual therapy and group therapy, and possibly couples therapy and Twelve Step groups, helps them to build new ways of feeling, thinking, and being in the world that are more concerned with sharing their life with others through honesty, truthfulness, and caring. The repeated but new patterns of sharing their deep and sometimes dark and shameful side with others enables them to gain and give acceptance and care. In this way, the addiction to sex and its compulsion to isolate, hide, and push away difficult thoughts or feelings is turned around. The hope is that those in recovery begin to understand how to live in the reality of true relationship with others. They develop more of an alignment, becoming relatively the same on the inside as they are on the outside, rather than living two separate lives (one in their addiction and the other that everyone sees them as, i.e., pastor, doctor, teacher, etc.).
More specifically, those who struggle with a sexual addiction learn more about how they were broken or harmed in the past, and what they can do with that hurt now. They identify the situations, people, and environments that trigger feelings of unworthiness, isolation, and wanting to escape. They do this with the hope that they will eventually be able to head off such feelings before acting in a way that is against their better selves, judgment, and care. Most importantly, they begin to learn about a healthy and life-giving sexuality that speaks to their holistic need for intimacy, but is also a true intimacy that goes beyond their sexuality.
Shame, Sexual Addiction’s Fuel
Another major aspect in the treatment of and recovery from sexual addiction concerns shame, internally and publicly. Often sexual addiction becomes known as a result of some sort of relationship or behavior that is revealed, either in a public way, via arrest, losing a job and/or because a spouse or partner found something. Through the public eye and media the message is often that sexual addiction is synonymous with a predator, peeping Tom, pervert of some sort, or worse yet, a pedophile. Although these forms of sexual crimes can be forms of sexual addiction and are often illegal, the vast majority of those suffering from sexual addiction are not breaking laws or preying on innocent people. Whether illegal or not, sex addiction is an addiction. It is no different in treatment to that of diabetes in the sense that once someone is identified with the problem, they will always have it in one way or another. However, it does not have to rule their lives and relationships.
We now know that much of sexual addiction can be managed and even reversed because it involves a brain development issue and through therapy and learning other healthy behaviors the brain can be re-trained to work differently. The ultimate goal of treatment for such intrusive behavior is to learn how to manage it. Treatment for sexual addiction works on building trust and safety, rather than hiding or lying. It also works by developing a healthy sexuality and understanding the development of the individual addict’s background, which may contribute to their compulsive behavior around the objectification/sexualization of people and things.
Neurobiology of Addiction
Over the years, an individual’s brain and behavior, driven by neurochemical reactions, has learned ways of dealing with tough, difficult, and stressful situations and feelings by giving oneself relief in certain ways. This is often how an individual becomes involved in addictions. It just so happens that when some people act out in sexual ways they meet the psycho-social and biological or neurochemical need, while in other addicts drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, work, or adrenaline, can provide relief. Many people use more than one way of gaining that relief, which means that an individual often does not just struggle with sexual addiction alone. Sexual addiction is often co-associated with a drug use/abuse, drinking alcohol, working too much, or getting high from scoring at a big game or taking a risky jump off of a nicely powdered ski slope. Any number of things can be used to numb the pain of their emotional life and how they feel about themselves internally.
The Spiritual Side of Sexual Addiction
As a person of faith, spirituality or a strong living ethic, one can’t pretend to know exactly what God, a higher power or a higher form of consciousness would actually say or feel about sexual addiction. But one can glean some essential and basic truths that Christian scripture offers us concerning how we live. When we are working on or looking into our shortcomings, shame, and/or sin, it is important to keep in mind that we are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 reminds us that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Being created in the image of God gives us a worth that is beyond the value of bricks of gold or pure diamonds, as a therapist friend of mine so eloquently puts it. In fact, our lives are significant in a way that far exceeds bricks of gold or diamonds.
However, the negative voices of others, and even more so, the voices one has internalized from parents, caregivers, coaches, or the bully at school or work, can continue to bring one down. That down state of feeling often leads an individual into wanting to escape such difficult feelings. In the attempt to feel better about themselves they’ve learned to feel better through some form of sexual behavior. Usually it starts with masturbation and/or pornography, and then it advances more to sexualizing people more through pornography or fantasy. Alternatively, they ingest some drug, chemical, or other substance in order to escape and cope. The point being these aren’t the voices that God or a higher power who created us in his image would want us to listen to. One may, however, associate such an inner critic with God’s voice, for many of people have been taught that God’s voice is a critical and/or at times condemning voice.
Higher Power is Calling Us to Our True Selves
Nevertheless, God, our higher power, continues to draw near to us, even in our shame. Moreover it is important to look at what God said in the creation story after Adam and Eve had partaken of the tree of knowledge? While God obviously knew that they had eaten of the tree, he still came into the garden and called to the man, asking in Genesis 3:9, “Where are you?”
“Where are you?” Is that not always how my parent called to me when they knew that I had done something that was against their will for me? Is “Where are you?” not a call to us from God? God is calling us again and again back into relationship with the presence that God offers. Even in the midst of this seemingly disappointing act, after Adam and Eve had done what they had been asked not to do, God continues to call them back into relationship and presence. Overwhelmingly, that is what recovery is about. It is a calling you back into right relationship with yourself and your Higher Power. For, it is only in your true self that you can truly know and accept Higher Power’s care and love for you, and not in the self of addiction, anxiety, depression, and hiding.
Learning to Love Ourselves
In recovery, one learns many things that are largely geared towards a new way of living, and for most addicts, it is a new way of living that involves taking care of oneself. Do you remember that last commercial flight you were on? Think of how the flight attendant reminded you to always put your oxygen mask on before assisting someone else. If you cannot breathe, then you cannot help the other person. Most addicts, especially sex addicts, have little to no understanding of what it means to take care of oneself. While they may display a lot of selfish behavior in their addiction, an addiction is not about taking care of oneself.
Rather, taking care of oneself involves slowing down, living life with a mindful or prayerful intent, setting appropriate boundaries with regard to work, food, activity, family, friends, and/or other distracting or addictive things. Taking care of oneself is also about hobbies, play, fun, and learning about what you might enjoy in life outside of work and obligation. Christ calls taking care of oneself one of the great commandments. Jesus is asked in Matthew 22: 36-39, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment … the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law of the Prophets.”
The whole of that passage is essential to our faith, yet as people of faith we tend to forget or miss the part that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment makes an assumption that says I need to love myself. Besides, if God loves me no matter what, why would I be any better if I negate God’s love by denigrating myself? The point is that we are commanded to love ourselves. This does not mean that we have a license to be selfish fools who care nothing for others. While selfishness is to some extent part of being human, it is not the same as loving ourselves, just as saying that one is a narcissist does not make one full of love for oneself. A narcissist actually has nothing but fear and contempt for themselves, and narcissism is in a certain sense synonymous with selfishness.
In my work as a Psychotherapist and Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, I have learned that spirituality, faith, shame, biology, and trusting relationships are all integral parts of healing and recovery from sexual addiction. The components of this healing process involve varying levels of work, concern, and attention depending on the individual’s treatment. All of the elements play a significant role in the process of building and developing a more healthy life. If any of this resonates with you, I would encourage you to find help, preferably from a therapist in training or trained in treating sex addiction, i.e., a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT).